Nets find shortcut to promote shows

Sifting through the mail lately a question keeps arising: Who the (bleep) titled these shows?

The tide of tabloid titles tells a tawdry tale, indicating a deflating descent into disheartening desperation. Or at least, that’s how Variety might have put it back in the “Sticks Nix Hick Pix” days.

Reality TV has doubtless influenced this process, compelling scripted programs and documentaries to compete with “Dancing With the Stars,” “Deal or No Deal” and “Celebrity Rehab,” where the title economically details everything one needs to know in a few words.

Still, you needn’t be a prude or purist to see the creep toward titles screaming provocative (and often unanswered) questions, or toying with bleeped-out profanity, as crossing a threshold — representing a plaintive and somewhat embarrassing wail for attention.

These factors have produced an inordinate number of programs that mirror either old Tori Spelling movies (a la “Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?”) or exploitative schlock of the 1950s (think “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” or “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman”).

CBS has raised hackles among conservative groups (and worse, copy editors) with “$#*! My Dad Says,” but at least that name is directly based on a preexisting commodity.

Meanwhile, channels like History, TruTV and Investigation Discovery have jointly conspired to lower the bar, with ID alone recently offering inquisitive-sounding programs like “Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry?” and “Why Is Bin Laden Alive?”

Presumably, the inevitable hybrid would be “Why the (Bleep) Did I Marry That (Bleep-ity-Bleep) Bin Laden?”

Speaking of marriage, MSNBC christened a documentary this month “I Married the D.C. Sniper,” while CNN labeled an upcoming and otherwise-reasonable special about priestly abuse and the Vatican’s role “What the Pope Knew.”

Such titles become an inexpensive form of promotion, clawing for any advantage to stand apart from the crowd, which might explain why Spike seems so obsessed with death (“1,000 Ways to Die”) and survival.

Scripted programs have followed suit, such as HBO’s “Hung,” a crude name and premise designed to provide entry into a bittersweet show about a Michigander’s recessionary angst.

Arguably, the right title can provide a lift in launching a program — one of the best demonstrations having come back in 2004, when then-moribund ABC delivered two winners, “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost.”

Since then, ABC has misplaced some of its mojo and delivered too many empty come-ons — scheduling titles in search of a show like “Cavemen” and “Cougar Town.” Looking at this season’s crop, “No Ordinary Family” is OK, but if you can determine what the network’s going for with “Mr. Sunshine” (recycling the name of a short-lived sitcom that starred Jeffrey Tambor), “Happy Endings” (which sounds more appropriate for Cinemax) and “Better With You,” you’re a better man or woman than I, Gunga Din.

By contrast, this fall’s network crown for well-chosen names belongs to NBC, which — perhaps reflecting its underdog status — clearly employed a sell-it-quick mantra: “The Event,” “Outsourced,” “Chase.” Sifting through Monday’s preliminary results, catchier titles (“Hawaii Five-0,” “The Event”) generally trumped those that were more cryptic (alas, Fox’s deserves- better “Lone Star”).

There’s also a lot of laziness out there in this regard. Bravo, for example, has sought to ease its marketing demands by affixing the same name to about half its lineup, merely altering the geography on new editions of “The Real Housewives of (Insert Top 10 Media Market Here).”

At the risk of growing overly nostalgic, things were simpler when TV was filled with westerns, birthing tersely descriptive titles like “The Rifleman” and “Have Gun, Will Travel.” Given the general environment now, though, more vague names would have required a makeover, with “Bonanza” becoming “(Bleep) Our Dad Said After Ma Died,” and “Gunsmoke” getting saddled with a cheeky moniker like “The Hard Man and Miss Kitty.”

What’s in a name? Ultimately a title is merely promise, but it goes a long way toward establishing a tone. By the way, there’s a CNBC special next week titled “Trash Inc: The Secret Life of Garbage.” Don’t look now, but when it comes to titles being full of $#*!, I’d say the secret is out.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more